The Internet's Impact on Teacher Practice and Classroom Culture

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Internet access and more constructivist teaching practices are commonly called for by national- and state-level commissions and plans. This raises two questions that were the focus of a study we recently completed. First, d'es Internet use result in an increase in constructivist teacher practices? Second, what other features of classroom life are impacted when the Internet is used as a source of information for student research projects? This article offers answers to these questions based on our findings, along with what we hope to be some practical advice.

While there are many definitions of "constructivism," most educators would agree that constructivist practices involve teachers facilitating students who engage in activities that garner their interest and build on their experiences. These practices also offer opportunities for higher-order thinking that routinely take students beyond finding and reporting facts to forming and defending opinions and solving open-ended problems. Our study examined these questions in five fifth-grade classrooms in two schools in a district in upstate New York to see if well-supported Internet access changes practice in constructivist directions. Each school had a level of Internet access, technical support and staff development opportunities commonly called for in the literature. Thus, the impact of classroom Internet access could be examined in an environment where the typical excuses related to the lack of some key ingredient were absent.

The Environment

The classrooms we studied were in two schools in a district that has been at the leading edge of instructional technology since the first director of computer services was hired in 1983. As a result of his leadership, as well as his support from the superintendent and the board of education, each elementary classroom has four to six Internet workstations with bandwidth equal to T1 or higher. Teachers have support from an elementary computer specialist and access to abundant staff development courses after school, which they are paid to attend. Each school also has a computer lab with 28 workstations that classes use for about an hour a week. All five teachers were veterans with more than 20 years of teaching experience and more than 10 years of experience using computers in their classrooms. The Internet workstations had been in place for at least two years, and four of the five teachers had used them previously as sources of information for student projects.

Our data includes interviews with teachers, administrators, students and technology staff; direct observations of classrooms, computer labs and other school locations; and assessments of student work. Observations were especially focused on student Internet projects. We were interested to see if these projects and any other Internet use resulted in an increase in constructivist practice by any of the five teachers. We also were looking to see if there were any other ways that Internet use impacted the classroom culture. We looked at five different projects in detail. Two involved students investigating a state of the union. A third project had students study a company listed on the New York Stock Exchange, and track its stock price and volume for a month. A fourth project had students write a report on a disease of their choice. The final project had groups of students study people who played important roles in the American Revolution. This project featured an innovative aspect in that an equal number of men and women were studied.

Constructivist Teaching Practices

At first glance, the activity associated with the Internet projects had a constructivist look. Teachers spent very little time giving direction and students were very active. Students were eager to help each other, and teachers spent most of their time facilitating student work. Students had many opportunities to tell teachers what they had found, and it was common to hear teachers respond with comments such as "I didn't know that." But, most of the assignments offered students some degree of choice, increasing their level of interest and providing the opportunity to relate to their experiences.

The students seemed comfortable and motivated as they clicked from site to site, and while some students seemed interested in what they encountered, most were also intent on satisfying the requirements of the particular assignment. A closer look at the assignments, however, suggested that teacher practice had not changed in constructivist directions. In general, the assignments expected students to answer a number of factual questions. All but a few of the questions could be categorized as knowledge retrieval. Exceptions were found at the end of the states and the stock exchange assignments in which the final questions asked students for their opinions.

A look at some assignments that did not involve the Internet showed a similar emphasis on finding and reporting facts, as well as on higher-order thinking. All teachers indicated during their interviews that getting the students to think was the most difficult thing they did. However, it was clear to us that the addition of the Internet to the classroom had not yet increased the frequency with which students were expected to go beyond fact finding.

Teaching the Teachers

The idea that students spend some time teaching others is also consistent with the constructivist theory. Teachers understand that explaining something to others is an effective way to help fortify one's own knowledge structure. For this reason, many modern lesson plans allow for peer teaching on the part of the students. Our study found that using the Internet promotes this type of peer interaction, and that it often allowed students to go one step further by teaching the teachers. In this context, teaching may be defined as nothing more than sharing simple facts, although it is not necessarily limited to such a fundamental learning activity.

Since microcomputers first entered the classroom more than 20 years ago, students have helped teachers learn how to use various operating systems, programming languages and applications. Computer experts among the teaching ranks have often been those teachers with the highest predisposition to learn from the most capable students. With the introduction of the Internet as an information source, the opportunities for all students to teach the teacher have greatly expanded. Given the massive amount of information available on the Internet, any student is now able to find information not formerly known by the teacher. Students are likely to be energized and motivated as they report new information to teachers. Teachers who accept this notion can then build it into their plans so that all students are expected to teach the teacher.

Our interviews with students and teachers support the notion that the Internet increases this type of interaction. Teachers and students alike felt this was a good thing. Students enjoyed telling teachers things they didn't know, and the teachers felt this added to the students' excitement and motivation. The message for teachers considering Internet use is to be prepared to learn more from the students as they dig for information. This requires that teachers adjust their attitudes to accept this type of role reversal.

Still a Boy Toy?

During our observations, we noticed girls were at least as comfortable as the boys were in searching for information on the Internet. We found this to contradict the current research that supports the notion that computers favor males in the school population. Many studies show boys are more likely to take computer courses and are generally more comfortable using computers than girls. If our observations are any indication, the Internet appears to shift this advantage toward females. It changes the face of the computer world from one centered on programming and adventure games to one that includes a significant communications focus. For those who have only used the computer to browse the Internet and send e-mail, the computer must seem like nothing more than an innovative communications device.

The girls in our study were comfortable searching for information on the Internet, and were also more likely to take the time to read what they found. Boys, however, were more likely to look at the pictures and quickly move on to the next link. It was common to see one or two girls reading multiple pages of text, while boys in general only lingered when they found something entertaining. Several sites featured in the stock exchange project offered games or animations. Boys were quick to engage in these activities and share them with friends. Girls were not immune, however, from the urge to just finish the task at hand. During one visit, students were shown how to preview Web pages prior to printing. This was done to save paper and printer supplies. After finding a Web page that seemed valuable, one girl determined that the print command would produce five printed pages. So, she elected only to print the first two since she didn't want to read all five pages.

Although the schools had not started to engage students in two-way communications, student focus groups revealed that girls spent at least as much time, and probably more, communicating via the Internet at home. Instant messaging was popular with most of the students. At first we didn't understand why students would type messages to each other when it would be easier to call each other on the telephone. Several students indicated their parents would rather see them working on the computer than talking on the telephone. We realized that IMing allowed groups of students to communicate. It also allowed each student to be part of more than one conversation at a time. Such activities were much more similar to the conversations in which girls typically engage at lunchtime. Conversely, during such free time, we found that the boys were more likely to play computer games they brought from home or browse sites related to their favorite toys.

The Digital Divide

While we believe shifting the computer-comfort balance in the female direction and extending opportunities for the teacher-student role reversal are positive, the fact that not all students have Internet access at home has negative implications. The Internet projects we studied all lasted from three to four weeks. This gave students with Internet access at home - about half in one school and three quarters in the other - the opportunity to work on their projects outside of the school day. It also made it possible for others to get significant help from their parents.

All the teachers realized this created a situation that favored some students over others beyond what was usually the case. To help balance this, the teachers made sure every student had all the time they needed in school to get information from the Internet. All students had some free time during the day, and we found students with Internet access at home were less likely to spend this time online. The teachers also had to consider how having a computer at home would otherwise provide an advantage. These students were more likely to hand in assignments that had been neatly prepared on a word processor. In the case of the Internet projects, some students used page layout software to arrange pictures they saved from the Internet along with their own text.

To their credit, the teachers did not grade a project higher because it was printed on a home computer. Handwritten projects were just as likely to receive top grades, and the marginal word processing efforts were fairly judged as well. Despite their efforts to level the playing field, however, all of the teachers still felt the students with Internet access at home had an advantage over those who did not; and the students agreed. When the students were asked about this, they all felt everyone should have Internet access at home. The comment "it should come with the house" expressed their general sentiment. The fact that it d'esn't raises an important concern for educators and policy makers at all levels.

The Role of Staff Development

Once we concluded that teaching practices had not shifted in a more constructivist direction, we took a closer look at the staff development process in the district to see what role it played. What we found at the district's teacher center was a list of short courses that focused on how to use a variety of software tools. Courses included introductory, intermediate and advanced versions, and incorporated tools such as Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Netscape and the district's e-mail product. Classes were heterogeneous, so teachers from any level or discipline could enroll in most classes. This, and the idea that an instructor could not be expected to be an expert in all teaching fields, made it difficult for instructors to deal with the specifics of how to use a tool in every classroom. As a result, they would demonstrate how the tools worked and let each teacher figure out how to use them in their own classroom. This resulted, for the most part, in teachers using computers to improve what they were already doing incrementally, rather than substantially changing their practice in any fundamental manner.

Using the Internet as an additional source of information increased the data available, and in some cases, allowed for assignments that were otherwise impossible. The stock exchange and American Revolution projects were good examples of this. Internet use, however, did not fundamentally change the nature of the projects. While the Internet projects featured active students and teachers guiding student work, this was not remarkably different from student and teacher project behavior before the Internet arrived. If districts expect teachers to use the Internet in a manner that increases higher-order thinking, they need to build this into their staff development plans. In our view, this should be part of the district's overall instructional plan rather than something that is solely relegated to the technology plan. It makes more sense from our viewpoint for the district plan for instruction to include the role of technology rather than a district technology plan that tries to change fundamental teaching practices.

The very nature of the information found on the Internet should also provide an opportunity to increase the frequency of higher-order thinking efforts. Finding information is now easier and much more is available; however, there is a price to pay for this additional information. Teachers, librarians or textbook publishers do not necessarily prescreen Internet information, unlike information from textbooks or library sources. The teachers and students in our study seemed to understand that information on the Internet could not always be trusted. One student said she found work on the Internet done by a third grader. This comment was voiced with the kind of disdain students generally reserve for younger children.

The school's library curriculum did contain one lesson that let students decide if information was reliable or biased. One lesson, however, did not appear to be enough. As we observed students at work, we saw much more effort directed at finding answers to the questions rather than evaluating the quality of the information. This implies that teachers constantly need to encourage students to evaluate what they find. This should be a good thing as the process of evaluating information g'es beyond the simple retrieval of facts.

Conclusions

When the administrators were asked if they had any evidence to prove Internet use had improved student achievement, they cited the appearance of student projects. Despite the lack of objective data, they felt learning their way around the Internet was a skill students would need as they furthered their education and entered the job market. The superintendent told us a story about a group of high school students who used information they found on the Internet to present an argument to the board of education opposing a proposal to start the school day earlier. His comment, "We don't own the information anymore," is one on which all educators should reflect.

Teachers also felt students would need to know how to use the Internet as they continued on through school. This was just one of the many pressures that they felt prompted them to incorporate the Internet into their classroom practice. Other sources included pressure from administration, newly adopted state standards and what they felt were expectations of their community. Students were of one voice when asked about future Internet use. They felt they would be using it much more as they continued their education. Most also felt they would use it on the job, although their answers to this question were largely based on whether their parents used it at work.

Once a district has the infrastructure in place, what can be done to increase teacher practice in constructivist directions? The key is to ensure the staff development program promotes active students facing cognitive challenges. This is at the heart of constructivist practice. Assignments should be designed to give students higher-order thinking tasks at the beginning, while showing them that fact finding is a way to solve problems and support conclusions. In the case of some of the projects we studied, students could have been told that forming and defending an opinion was the main task rather than the last of 10 questions. If possible, tasks should be open-ended so students will stop asking if they have the correct answer and start evaluating their efforts.


Study Highlights

The nature of our study d'es not allow for broad generalizations, but it d'es point to a number of key issues that teachers and administrators must consider as they find a place for the Internet as an instructional tool:

  • Staff development should show teachers how to create more situations where students engage in higher-order thinking. Simply showing teachers how to use computer applications and the Internet is not likely to accomplish that.
  • The Internet increases access for all students to information not known to teachers and, therefore, increases the opportunities for teachers to learn from students. Teachers who are predisposed to being taught by students can plan accordingly.
  • Boys do not appear to be more comfortable than girls in using computers when it comes to Internet access. Girls may even have an advantage when it comes to searching for information and/or communicating.
  • Teachers in our study felt that students with Internet access at home have an advantage over students who do not. Even though it may not be possible to eliminate the entire advantage, teachers should provide additional time online to students who lack access at home without awarding higher grades for papers printed on home computer systems.
  • This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2002 issue of THE Journal.

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